A Century of Stage and Screen
The Virginia Theatre’s legendary stage has hosted literally thousands of performances in the past one hundred years, while it’s fifty-two foot-wide movie screen (the largest downstate) has witnessed historic advances in the technology of film, transitioning first from silent movies to “talkies” and later to 35mm and 70mm films, finally arriving at today’s high-definition, digital movie downloads.
Opened in 1921 near the end of the vaudeville era, the Virginia offered the public a wide array of entertainments that included variety shows, “legitimate” theatre, concerts, local fundraisers, dance recitals, celebrity appearances, comedians, and, of course, movies.
The 1920s in Champaign was an era known for its rapid growth, energy, and enthusiasm. At the Virginia Theatre, films were often paired with special live presentations in back-to-back, all-day-long programs that included, for example, a screening of Buster Keaton’s silent feature “The General” followed by a live concert with Bruce Wert’s Illini Troubadours. The Warner Brothers drama “White Flannels” was no doubt vastly improved by a live performance from Jack Crawford and his Recording Orchestra. And local tenor John Griffin—who often sang before or after Virginia movie screenings—graced the stage at “The Beloved Rogue”, while “Lovey Mary” was complemented by an on-stage reading from psychic Alla Axiom.
From the very beginning, comedy and music found a home at the Virginia Theatre, with frequent visits by major national performers such as Will Rogers headlining a schedule that included touring Broadway musicals like “My Maryland”, a 1928 romance advertised as featuring “a Male Chorus of 100 and a Girl Chorus of 35”.
Dance was also well represented early in the life of the Virginia, with touring acts making numerous stops. Local instructor Thelma Leah Rose started a long-running tradition of annual summer dance recitals in the 1930s.
Today, the Champaign Park District’s Virginia Theatre continues to host a broad range of both locally-produced and touring concerts, children’s shows, films, stage plays, comedy, and special events.
Working together with local companies like the Champaign Urbana Ballet, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, Champaign Urbana Theatre Company, the Park District’s own Youth Theatre and Dance Arts programs, Champaign Unit 4 Schools, Champaign Urbana Symphony Orchestra, That’s What She Said, Sinfonia da Camera, and so many others, the Virginia Theatre has always been the place where the community goes to put on a show.
Legendary touring artists who have in recent years also appeared on the Virginia’s stage include Alison Krauss, The O’Jays, Vince Gill, Mavis Staples, Alice Cooper, Robert Cray, Chicago, BB King, Kansas, Lily Tomlin, John Prine, Taj Mahal, Mike Birbiglia, Melissa Etheridge, Donny Osmond, Bill Maher, Tommy Emmanuel, Weird Al, Peter Frampton, Dwight Yoakam, The Second City, Lyle Lovett, Keb’ Mo’, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Michael McDonald, Brian Regan, Jewel, Rosanne Cash, The Temptations, Nate Bargazte, The Beach Boys, Paula Poundstone, and ZZ Top, just to name a few!
A Taste of Europe, Right Here in East Central Illinois
Designed to emulate the grand opera houses of Europe, the Virginia Theatre’s exterior was done in the Italian Renaissance-Revival style while the interior is in the Spanish Renaissance-Revival style.
Masterfully crafted decorative plasterwork adorns the main and mezzanine lobbies with design motifs repeated throughout the auditorium’s ceiling, lighting fixtures, door frames, and pillars. The theatre’s exterior was originally designed to resemble an Italian pavilion, with yellow and red stripped awnings covering the side-walks on the building’s eastern and northern sides.
The interior’s decorative plaster includes heraldic shields and other Spanish Renaissance symbols. Busts of adventurers Cortez, Hernandez, and Alvarado are featured in bas relief on the balcony’s front-facing edge, along with the Christian arms of Ferdinand and Isabella.
The ceiling dome was originally finished in silver leaf. Gold leaf complements the auditorium’s largest decorative medallions as well as the proscenium arch.
One of only a few instruments of its kind that is still operated in its original theatre home, the Virginia’s Wurlitzer Hope Jones (Style 185, Special Opus 490) Orchestral Theatre Organ was played at the 1921 grand opening by house organist George May.
In the 1960s, the Virginia’s 750-pipe Wurlitzer was initially restored by University of Illinois student (and future author of the “Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ”) David Junchen.
In the 1980s, local organist Warren York began his own volunteer restoration of the historic instrument as he launched a renowned twenty-year tenure as Virginia Theatre house organist.
In 2012, a total restoration of the theatre’s Wurlitzer was completed by John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders of Champaign after area resident Jill Knappenberger launched the year-long project with a generous gift in memory of her husband, local attorney Gaylord Knappenberger.
Today, house organist David Schroeder continues the proud tradition of providing pre-show performances on the Virginia’s mighty Wurlitzer!
Champaign, Illinois resident and theatre impresario Charles “C.C.” Pyle (owner of the Rialto Theater on Church Street) approaches Detroit architectural firm C. Howard Crane to develop plans for a new venue in downtown Champaign, near the Orpheum Theatre. In all, the Crane Company designed more than 250 theatres nationwide, including The Fox in St. Louis, Missouri.
January 4, 1920
The Champaign News-Gazette publishes a story about C.C. Pyle’s plans for a new building project in downtown Champaign. The plans call for a 12-story, 330-room hotel incorporating a 2,200-seat theatre, a barber shop, a coffee shop, and a bowling alley.
After their hotel project fails to advance, Pyle’s team instead purchases property at the corner of Randolph Street and Park Avenue, Champaign, with the intention of building a grand, European-style opera house. Crane Co. architect Kenneth Franzheim is enlisted to design the space, with Champaign architect George Ramey overseeing the project locally.
A $400,000 agreement is signed with local contractor A.W. Stoolman to build the new theatre. More than 80 firms from across the country help with construction. When funding problems occur, A.W. Stoolman partners with C.C. Pyle to complete the project, which is to be named for Stoolman’s daughter, Elizabeth Virginia Stoolman.
December 28, 1921
The Virginia Theatre celebrates its Grand Opening with a touring production of the hit Broadway comedy/mystery “The Bat” by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. Audiences are asked not to reveal the outcome to others so that they too can be surprised when they see it.
December 29-31, 1921
The Virginia screens its first (silent) films: “Tol’able David” and Buster Keaton’s “The Boat”. Also on the program are live performances by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra (H.M. Weber, conductor) and George May on the Hope-Jones Orchestral Organ.
C.C. Pyle approaches University of Illinois football star Red Grange during one of the player’s many visits to the Virginia Theatre and offers to serve as Grange’s agent, ultimately brokering the deal to sign Red to the Chicago Bears the following year.
March 10, 1929
An RCA Photophone system is installed at a cost of $20,000, bringing talking pictures to the Virginia Theatre.
May 25, 1930
The RKO Company begins a long-term lease of the Virginia, with a focus on presenting both live performances and movie screenings. Thelma Leah Rose Dance Studio starts a Virginia Theatre tradition of annual dance performances that continues into the 1970s and is carried on today by programs like CU Ballet, Dance Arts, Twist & Shout Dance & Cheer, and Art in Motion.
June 1, 1936
11-year old Champaign resident Buddy Strait attends a screening of “The Ex Mrs. Bradford” with two friends, choosing seats in the Virginia’s large upper balcony. After Buddy falls asleep, his friends abandon him, leaving Buddy to wake up alone after the theatre has closed. While moving about the darkened space, Buddy falls from the balcony to the main floor below and is later discovered by a passerby in the theatre’s foyer. The passerby breaks the front lock and helps the child to Champaign’s Burnham Hospital. Buddy recovers completely, returning home that weekend. It is not known whether he ever attends another movie at the Virginia Theatre.
RKO celebrates its ten-year anniversary at the Virginia with the first renovation of the still-young theatre, installing new seats, closing up the back wall of the auditorium’s main floor (which was originally open to the main lobby), and placing a new Art Deco-style marquee on the building’s façade.
The Virginia screens films in “3D” for the first time.
The theatre’s foyer, front doors, and box office are remodeled at a cost of $20,000.
June 1, 1967
A.W. Stoolman’s daughter Elizabeth Virginia Stoolman and her husband William Julian take back control of the Virginia after RKO relinquishes its lease of the theatre.
August 1, 1968
The Kerasotes Theater Company purchases the Virginia from the Stoolman family, adding it to their successful 61-theatre national chain. While most of the Virginia’s programming in the Kerasotes years is of first-run films, a live stage production of the all nude theatrical review “Oh! Calcutta!” is hosted in 1977, for an appreciative audience.
February 13, 1992
The Kerasotes Company screens its final picture at the Virginia, Steve Martin’s “Father of the Bride”, following years of industry-wide change that sees countless single-screen theatres close their doors.
David and Sharon Wyper take over management of the Virginia Theatre for the Kerasotes Company, operating the venue as a live performance space and booking acts such as Alison Krauss and Lyle Lovett and touring productions of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “A Chorus Line”.
Community members Leonard Doyle, Kent Freeland, Jeff Goldberg, Brent O’Neill, Kathy Murphy, John Stuff, Eric and Mark Nimrichter, Janet McCumber, Prudence Runkle, Joe DiCiaula, and Lynda Umbarger launch the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company (CUTC) to bring community theatre back to the Virginia and save the building from demolition. CUTC presents its first musical at the Virginia, “The Music Man”, in June, 1992.
A new non-profit is formed, the Virginia Theatre Group, to oversee restoration and management at the theatre, purchasing the Virginia from Kerasotes with funds secured by a $500,000 loan from the City of Champaign and $500,000 in a charitable contribution from Kerasotes, along with another $100,000 from local photographer and philanthropist William Capel.
The first annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival is presented at the Virginia Theatre, Champaign.
January 1, 2000
The Champaign Park District (under Robert Toalson, Director) and the City of Champaign (under Dannel McCollum, outgoing Mayor) announce the Park District’s acquisition of the Virginia Theatre, with the City forgiving its original loan, plus interest, to enable building restoration and programming to resume almost immediately.
The Friends of the Virginia Theatre are formed to raise funds for the restoration project, with Roger Ebert serving as honorary Chair alongside co-chairs Barb Kuhl and Susan Lobdell. Restoration of the theatre’s electrical, plumbing, and safety features commences. That same year, The News-Gazette launches its classic film series in partnership with the Champaign Park District. The News-Gazette also makes possible the restoration of the theatre’s reel-to-reel projection system.
The Champaign Park District establishes the Champaign Parks Foundation with its first initiative a major fundraising campaign to restore the Virginia Theatre. Restoration of the theatre’s eastern lobby is started that year.
Following a significant bequest from Michaels’ Catering owner Michael Carragher, the Champaign Park District launches a major restoration of the Virginia Theatre’s main lobby – now renamed “Tootsie’s Lobby” in tribute to Mr. Carragher’s mother, Ruth – as well as its mezzanine lobby and concession stand (“Tootsie” was Ruth Carragher’s nickname; both she and Michael loved the Virginia’s best-in-class popcorn). Work concludes just in time for the annual New Year’s Eve concert presented by The Chorale (Julie Beyler, director).
The Virginia Theatre’s Wurlitzer Pipe Organ is rededicated following its restoration by John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders in a special concert featuring award-winning theatre organist Chris Gorsuch.
The Champaign Park District completes a 5.5 million dollar “Phase 3” restoration of the Virginia Theatre’s auditorium, stage, and backstage dressing room areas.
A 4K high-definition digital projection system is added to the Virginia’s booth in a special upgrade led by Ebertfest projectionist James Bond.
A state-of-the-art, concert-quality “line-array” sound system is installed. Additional restoration efforts at the theatre during its COVID-19 lock-down include tuckpointing the exterior brickwork, replacing the roof, and ongoing repairs to the decorative paint and plaster.
A new air-conditioning system is installed in the auditorium and in the theatre’s forward lobbies.
December 28, 2021
Champaign Park District celebrates the One Hundred Year Anniversary of the historic Virginia Theatre with a special presentation of the Broadway play “The Bat: A Comedy/Mystery in Two Acts”, produced by Jeff Goldberg and directed by John Stuff. Performances to run for three nights, December 28 through 30, at 7pm.
With special thanks to the Champaign Park District Board of Commissioners, the Champaign Parks Foundation, the Champaign County History Museum, The News-Gazette, and the donors, patrons, volunteers, stagehands and staff of the Virginia Theatre.